The Material Culture of The Winnipeg General Strike

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Artifacts to be on Display at the CMHR

One of the first points of collaboration under the newly signed Memorandum of Understanding between the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) and The Manitoba Museum (TMM) will be the loan of several rare artifacts to the CMHR from the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike.

The Manitoba Museum has long taken an interest in this monumental episode in Canada’s labour history. The Museum’s popular Urban Gallery portrays Winnipeg as it appeared in the fall of 1920, in the aftermath of the six-week long labour struggle. Both sides of the Strike are represented in this life-like gallery, which recreates a downtown section of the city, divided by a set of railroad tracks. North End, working class Winnipeg is represented on one side with its garment factory, boarding house, and pawn shop.  The other side features a fashionable dress maker’s shop, theatre, dental office and British parlour along with a depiction of City Hall portraying the city’s social, political and cultural elite.

An All Peoples Mission stands at one end of the gallery on the ‘north’ side of the tracks. The missions were organized by Methodist proponents of the Social Gospel, like J.S. Woodworth who became a leader of the Winnipeg General Strike, a Labour Member of Parliament, and a founder of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation/New Democratic Party CCF/NDP. The All Peoples Missions worked to alleviate the hardships suffered by Winnipeg’s impoverished immigrant population. They also strove to assimilate “foreign” newcomers into the dominant British culture. 

One Big Union Lapel Pin
OBU (One Big Union) Lapel Pin, 1919 
These OBU members’ badges demonstrated their support for industrial unionism. Organizing across traditional divisions in the workplace strengthened the voice of labour when industrialisation led to the de-skilling of many trades and the decline of craft unions. The One Big Union was founded with Winnipeg representatives like Bob Russell taking a leading role in Calgary in March 1919. 
Collections of The Manitoba Museum (H9-20-149)

The first artifacts in TMM’s Winnipeg General Strike collection came from the James Street Labor Temple. Union leaders gathered at this site to rally Winnipeg’s union members, promote industrial unionism, and plan the General Strike. Located at the corner of James and Louise streets, the Labor Temple was one of the buildings demolished in the 1960s to make way for the Centennial Concert Hall and Manitoba Museum complex. 

Curatorial research over the years led to further growth in the Winnipeg General Strike collection, and the development of the Museum’s overall Labour History collection. In total, over 30 artifacts directly connected to the Strike were amassed, along with dozens of additional items from Manitoba’s rich labour history.

Winnipeg’s police force voted to join the Winnipeg General Strike, but stayed on the job when the Strike leaders asked them to do so. The City gave the police 24 hours to sign a contract that prohibited union membership. When they refused, they were dismissed, and the anti-strike Committee of 1000 recruited 2,000 untrained “Special Constables” to patrol the streets, wearing special badges and armbands and carrying Billy clubs
Special Constable Badge
Special Constable Badge, 1919. Collections of The Manitoba Museum (H9-24-624)
Special Police Armband
Special Police Armband, 1919. Collections of The Manitoba Museum (H9-24-627)
Special Police Baton
Special Police Baton, 1919. Collections of The Manitoba Museum (H9-25-2)


These artifacts have been featured in a number of temporary exhibitions at TMM, most notably “Winnipeg 1919: A City in Crisis - A 75th Anniversary Exhibition on the Winnipeg General Strike” (1994). Some were shown again in 2009 as part of a 90th anniversary exhibition.

Photo Plate image
Photographic Printing Plate, 1919 
This engraving shows a reverse image of the Winnipeg General Strike leaders who were arrested the night of June 16-17 on charges of “ Conspiracy and Sedition.” They were taken to Stony Mountain Penitentiary and held for deportation proceedings under the new Immigration Act. 
L-R, Back Row: Roger E. Bray, George Armstrong, John Queen, R.B. (Bob) Russell, R.J. Jones, Bill Pritchard. L-R, Front Row: William A. Ivens, A.A. (Abraham Albert) Heaps. Collections of The Manitoba Museum (H9-7-841)

Leaders of the Winnipeg General Strike Imprisoned at Stony Mountain Penitentiary

Leaders of the Winnipeg General Strike Imprisoned at Stony Mountain Penitentiary, June 1919
Courtesy: Library and Archives Canada /C-39558
Many of the Strike leaders, including Fred Dixon, John Queen, George Armstrong, William Ivens, A.A. Heaps and J.S. Woodsworth, went on to serve as elected representatives at the municipal, provincial and federal government levels, where they worked to improve labour rights through the legislative process.

Replicas of six key Strike artifacts were fabricated for inclusion in TMM Winnipeg General Strike Educational Kit (2011).  Supported by Manitoba Education, Citizenship and Youth and with assistance from the Faculty of Education, the University of Winnipeg, the Oral History Centre at the University of Winnipeg, this educational resource is used at TMM and elsewhere. Copies have been made available to all high schools throughout Manitoba and have been received enthusiastically by educators -  especially as a resource for the Grade 11 history curriculum.

The CMHR will now benefit from the collecting work carried out by TMM, as artifacts from Winnipeg’s famous labour struggle are incorporated into its own Winnipeg General Strike exhibit. 

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